Among other things, the study jointly conducted by Society for Participatory Research in Asia and Indicus Analytics on Economic Contributions of Urban Poor reflects our attitudes towards slum dwellers. In Mumbai, where economic inequalities are extreme, the city’s sprawling underbelly, dark and filthy, is an “eyesore” for those living in highrises. For people in other towns and cities fortunate enough to afford a decent lifestyle, the perception is similar as slums are considered the breeding ground for crime and diseases.
So when 50 per cent of the respondents in the study say that slums have a negative impact on city life, they are articulating urban India’s hostility to the poor. For one-third of the respondents spread across 50 cities, who appear to be indulgent towards the presence of shanties, these sprawls are a source of cheap domestic and industrial labour.
If only those opposed to slums and for purely selfish reasons knew how valuable these poor people are to India’s growth story. The study says that slum dwellers contribute 7.5 per cent of the country’s urban domestic product. To illustrate it a bit more, Dharavi, Asia’s biggest slum, home to about 60,000 structures, has an annual economic output estimated to be more than $1 billion.
The money is generated from traditional textiles, leather, pottery and a large recycling industry. Its women work as domestic help in millions of households. Even the tour of the slum for international tourists is a money-spinner. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that Mumbai depends on Dharavi for survival.
The ardent champions of slum rehabilitation who want to see their city “clean and presentable” need to realise that resettling the poor outside city limits cannot be a solution. It means dumping them at some godforsaken place, where there is no infrastructure, and expecting them to rebuild their lives from the scratch. It only serves to bring back painful memories of the Emergency when the residents of the Turkman Gate slums were forcibly evicted and shunted outside Delhi in a move to cleanse the capital. In Mumbai, the slum rehabilitation process is extremely politicised and steeped in corruption. Political parties are loath to let go of shanties. These are votebanks, crucial to their electoral fortunes. Moreover, rehabilitation outside city limits will take these people far away from their workplaces, leading to loss of man hours and productivity.
Slums tell the story of economic depravation and injustice. They are the product of migration from villages because agriculture is no longer a viable means of livelihood. The accent is clearly on manufacturing, real estate and the services industries in spite of India still being considered an agrarian economy. Suketu Mehta in Maximum City writes that every day about 800 people come to stay in Mumbai permanently. Most of them land up in slums to live a life amid open sewers where even expecting basic amenities like sanitation appears ridiculous. Yet people do not grumble because they aspire to overcome their subaltern status and improve the quality of their lives.
The slum dwellers an integral part of our daily lives are easy victims of exploitation as cities continue to be cruel to the vulnerable and the dispossessed.